Sunday's road contest against the New Orleans Saints marks the third straight year these former NFC West division rivals have gone head to head.
Under the direction of head coach Mike Nolan, the 49ers have yet to best the Saints and will seek revenge for two lopsided losses in 2006 and 2007.
Sean Payton and his 1-2 Saints are meanwhile looking for their own vindication after dropping two last minute losses to the Redskins and the Broncos. After getting down 21-3, the Saints battled back with only a two-point conversion separating them from tying the game early in the fourth quarter with a go-ahead 43-yard field goal by Martin Gramatica sailing wide right in the final two minutes for the most recent loss in Denver.
"We had a chance and an opportunity and it's disappointing," said Payton of the loss. "So we have got to battle back here and prep some of the mistakes that hurt us in this game and move on. I thought we played hard, and we played a good team on the road. Our focus is now to get ready and get healthy to play San Francisco."
Unfortunately, the Saints suffered some additional losses on top of the defeat and are anything but healthy.
Their big plans for Pro Bowl tight end Jeremy Shockey, who they acquired via trade from the Giants, have been placed on hold for the next 3-6 weeks. News came out of Saints headquarters on Monday that Shockey, who was second on the team in receptions, is set to have surgery this week to repair a sports hernia.
The Saints are thin at tight end behind Shockey with backup Mark Campbell missing last week with a hamstring injury. The Saints re-signed Billy Miller last week after cutting him the week before. The Saints also activated Buck Ortrega from the practice squad on Saturday before playing Denver.
Receiver David Patten, who enjoyed a 109-yard receiving game against the 49ers last year, exited Sunday's game in Denver early with a groin injury.
|**Total Offense**||**11**||**Total Offense**||**4**|
|**Passing Offense**||**12**||**Passing Offense**||**1**|
|**Rushing Offense**||**11**||**Rushing Offense**||**28**|
|**Total Defense**||**10**||**Total Defense**||**28**|
|**Run Defense**||**21**||**Run Defense**||**22**|
|**Pass Defense**||**7**||**Pass Defense**||**29**|
|**KOR Average**||**14t**||**KOR Average**||**30**|
|**PR Average**||**7**||**PR Average**||**1**|
|**KO Coverage**||**15**||**KO Coverage**||**20**|
|**PR Coverage**||**29**||**PR Coverage**||**14**|
The Saints are also already without last year's leading receiver in Marques Colston, who needed surgery to repair a torn ligament in his thumb after the week one game.
That leaves Devery Henderson, Lance Moore, Robert Meachem and Terrance Cooper at receiver, although Copper was also inactive last week because of a hamstring injury.
Though they may come into this weekend's game banged up at receiver, the Saints still possess one of the league's best at finding the open man.
Quarterback Drew Brees remains at the helm for the Saints offense, and is currently leading the NFL with 980 passing yards. He's completed 74.3% of his passes with 5 TD's and 3INTs on the season for an overall 103.9 QB Rating. Brees is coming off a 421-yard passing day and one TD outing against the Broncos, marking the fourth biggest passing day in club history.
Running back Reggie Bush has been Brees' primary target in the receiving game with 26 catches for 250 yards and two touchdowns. He's also led the Saints rushing efforts with 42 carries for 152 yards. His highest rushing total on the season came in week one versus the Bucs when he finished with 51 yards on 14 carries for a 3.6 average.
Deuce McAllister has been quiet coming off last year's season-ending knee injury with just two carries for ten yards.
The Saints offensive line denied the 49ers a single sack last year on their quarterback, surrendering and NFL low 16 sacks by year's end. New Orleans remains staunch in their pass protection with only 4 sacks allowed so far on the year, which is also a credit to Brees' elusiveness.
The line lost starting center Jeff Faine in free agency, and now feature Jonathan Goodwin as the starter. Goodwin started last year when the 49ers faced the Saints, and up until a few days ago, the 49ers factored to face the exact line they did in 2007. However, news came out on Tuesday that starting left guard Jamar Nesbit has been suspended by the NFL. He'll likely be replaced by rookie Carl Nicks out of Nebraska. Starting left tackle Jammal Brown is also day to day with a hip injury.
The line has been a bit ineffective in short yardage situations, and combined with the lack of a big power pack to complement Bush, the Saints are 3 for 7 on 3rd and 1.
Defensively, the Saints strength right now lies in a front that features Charles Grant, Kendrick Clancy, Sedrick Ellis, Will Smith and Brian Young. Young is the actual starter over Clancy, but he's seen limited action since fracturing his foot in the off-season and injuring his knee in the preseason.
Smith led the Saints in their sack efforts a year ago with seven and has one of their four sacks so far on this season.
The Saints linebacking corps, used to delivering hard hits, has unfortunately taken some battering of their own. The defense's best player – strongside linebacker Scott Fujita – has a bruised knee that has kept him out the last two weeks of action. He's been replaced by rookie Jo-Lonn Dunbar.
Middle linebacker Mark Simoneau, who had been splitting time with former Jets linebacker Jonathan Vilma, has been lost for the season with a back injury. Vilma leads the Saints tackling efforts with 28 stops on the season.
Sixth-year linebacker Scott Shanle is starting as the weakside linebacker.
New Orleans' secondary received a bit of a facelift this off-season with the addition of former Patriots cornerback Randall Gay and former Jaguars cornerback Aaron Glenn. Glenn is more of a nickel corner, although he was inactive last week with ligament damage in his ankle. Gay also tweaked his hamstring in the Denver game and looks to be day to day for Sunday's contest.
Mike McKenzie, a veteran corner known for his physical coverage, was the Saints projected corner opposite Gay, but they are working him in slowly after having knee surgery last December. Even in limited action, McKenzie notched the only Jay Cutler interception last week.
Roman Harper returns as the team's starting strong safety, with Kevin Kaesviharn taking over the starting role at free safety instead of Josh Bullocks.
Gramatica, who missed the potential game winner last weekend, signed on with the team late last year as a replacement for Olindo Mare. He finished the year perfect on all five of his field goals, and is 3/5 on the new year. In addition to the 43-yard miss, the nine-year veteran missed on a 51-yard try in Denver.
Steven Weatherford returns as the Saints punter after a strong performance in 2007 with 20 punts inside the 20-yardline and only four touchbacks. On 14 punts so far this season, he's pinned two inside the 20 with two touchbacks.
Backup running back Pierre Thomas has worked as the Saints primary kickoff returner this season and holds a long return of 25 yards. His 18.6 average yards per return rank him second to last in the NFL.
Reggie Bush has fielded the majority of punts for the Saints (4) and opposite of their low rankings on kick returns, he is the NFL's leading punt returner with a 21.3 average, a credit to his 55-yard touchdown return. Lance Moore also has one return on the season.
The Saints have the advantage this week of an extremely loud home Superdome crowd as they look to extend their four-game win streak over the 49ers, but San Francisco looks to build on their more current two-game win streak.
Check out the game on FOX at 10:00AM PST this Sunday to see this heated contest unfold.